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30 Essential British Films You Need To Watch

14 January 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by Brian White

essential british films

As the third list of our World Cinema Project, we have assembled the finest 30 films from British cinema. The identity of the British industry, and its relationship with Hollywood, has been the subject of debate. The history of film production in Britain has often been affected by attempts to compete with the American industry.

It’s been difficult to narrow down the selection and still represent the many facets of British cinema – from the Hammer horror films to the Ealing studio and Monty Python comedies, to the melodramas of The Archers, from Laurence Olivier’s Shakespeare adaptions to the high class Merchant-Ivory productions, from classic cinema of Hitchcock and Lean, to British New Wave cinema, to working-class cinema, to the cinema of Danny Boyle and Steve McQueen – but we think we’ve managed a pretty comprehensive selection. Enjoy the read!


30. This Is England (2006) by Shane Meadows


Clearly ripped from director’s own experiences, this rite-of-passage tale sees a naive, isolated youngster (Thomas Turgoose – a revelation) scooped up by some friendly skinheads and introduced to the joys of young love, ska, short hair and oversized, steel toe-capped Doc Martens.

The film established Meadows in a league of his own when it comes to naturalistic, comic dialogue and wringing sensitive performances from young cast members. It also confirmed him as a director whose predominant interest is in contrasting the invigorating highs and vicious lows of English working-class life.


29. Four Weddings And A Funeral (1994) by Mike Newell

Four Weddings And A Funeral

The film that set Hugh Grant on the road towards ‘Notting Hill’ and a varied career as Britain’s jester of romcom. Using one of Richard Curtis’s less cheesy screenplays, director Newell fashioned a richly rewarding and funny microcosm of various relationships centred mostly around Grant’s likeable bachelor, Charles. Emotionally honest and full of human warmth, ‘Four Weddings…’ stands out as one of the most enjoyable of British romcoms. And what’s more, it’s the only film in this list to open with the word ‘fuck!’


28. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) by Tomas Alfredson


Led by Gary Oldman’s buttoned-down George Smiley (“It’s a sitting down role,” as he describes it), it’s an old-fashioned search for a mole among the top spies of “The Circus”, something made more difficult by the fact that he’s officially retired. Also, of course, the suspects are some of Blighty’s finest actors, from Colin Firth to Toby Jones and Ciaran Hinds, while the pawns at stake include Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy, so they’re not going to be easy to read.

With that lot on top form, Alfredson might have been forgiven for just pointing the camera at them and giving up, but in fact he crafts a grimy, distinctly 70s London in muted tones and dim shadows and gives the whole thing a sheen of undoubted quality.


27. Shaun of The Dead (2004) by Edgar Wright


At Shaun Of The Dead’s big, beautiful heart, there’s a single, simple joke: modern-day Londoners behave much like zombies, so what if there was an actual zombie apocalypse? Would all the Tube-going, bum-scratching commuters even notice? Brought to the screen by the Holy Comedy Trinity that is Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright, it’s a masterpiece, right up there with Evil Dead II as one of the finest horror comedies ever made. 


26. Dracula (1958) by Terence Fisher


Hammer stalwart Fisher delivered this rum and rather gory (for the time) take on Bram Stoker’s horror classic of the battle of wills between a devilish, blood-sucking Transylvanian count and his bookish slayer. It helps that Peter Cushing as Van Helsing and Christopher Lee as Dracula are both on top scenery (and in the case of Lee, neck) chewing form, while you also watch in amazement at how they managed to make such a lavish film on the near-pittance of £81,000.


25. Moon (2009) by Duncan Jones


After three Transformers movies, Battle Los Angeles and Green Lantern, you’d be forgiven for thinking that sci-fi had been left for braindead. But let us gently frogmarch you in the direction of Duncan Jones’ Moon, a smart, stripped down brainteaser that builds suspense and handles complex philosophical and ethical issues with a few sets and a single central performance (by Sam Rockwell). The set-up is a little High Noon (High Moon, anyone?), via that film’s own sci-fi remake Outland, but the external threat (the arrival of ‘help’) is just the backdrop to Sam’s own existential crisis. 


24. Quadrophenia (1979) by Franc Roddam


The Who’s classic rock opera Quadrophenia was the basis for this invigorating coming-of-age movie and depiction of the defiant, drug-fueled mod subculture of early 1960s London. Our antihero is Jimmy (Phil Daniels), a teenager dissatisfied with family, work, and love. He spends his time knocking around with his clothes-obsessed, pill-popping, scooter-driving fellow mods, a group whose antipathy for the motorcycle-riding rockers leads to a climactic riot in Brighton.

Director Franc Roddam’s rough-edged film is a quintessential chronicle of youthful rebellion and turmoil, with Pete Townshend’s brilliant songs (including “I’ve Had Enough,” “5:15,” and “Love Reign O’er Me”) providing emotional support, and featuring Sting and Ray Winstone in early roles.

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  • Iam_Spartacus

    I can think of several films that ought to be on this list:
    The Jim Sheridan films My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father
    And although banned for several years, Peeping Tom is now getting its just due. Pretty much now considered a serious contender to Hitch’s Psycho.

    Just name a few.

  • Tuckett Bridges

    erm dead mans shoes…..

  • James Baxter

    A Clockwork Orange? I know its an american director but he was living there. ANd the cast is english

  • Emisa Rista

    what about Pygmalion?